Ilove the fact that there are still some weekly shows on TV (as opposed to all-in-one seasonal drops), but “Westworld” (Sundays, HBO) is not the ideal show for this format. Then again, even when binged, it’s hard to keep all the characters and their goals straight. Still, after a Season 2 that I found tough to get through, I decided to give Season 3 a chance. And the season premiere, “Parce Domine,” is one of the best episodes of the series to date.
Aside from some teases, this is our first look at the future world outside of Westworld (which is located on an island near China). Modern Singapore stands in for future London and Los Angeles and it looks spectacular. So does Evan Rachel Wood as robot Dolores, who escaped Westworld at the convoluted end of last season.
In various slinky dresses, Dolores goes about her plans (which, as always with this show, we aren’t privy to) to make a world that’s safe for former Westworld hosts to live in. Wood was so fragile as Jesse on “Once and Again,” but she’s so tough here, thanks to her performance combined with the costume, makeup and hair design. Dolores infiltrates the palatial estate of a rich magnate – formerly a Westworld guest who was particularly rough on her – and achieves her aims as effortlessly as a Terminator.
But she’s not infallible. She’s caught by the bodyguard of Liam (John Gallagher Jr.), her boyfriend and heir to a company that has developed a cutting-edge metadata analyzer, and is going to be killed and dumped in a river. It’s delicious that we viewers, unlike bodyguard Martin (Tommy Flanagan), know the lethal drugs won’t work on her. No one in the outside world knows how self-aware the hosts are, nor that they’ve escaped from Westworld. (Flanagan is fun to watch, and it’s cool that he’ll be back in the role of Dolores’ henchman, as Martin is implanted into an artificial body. Last season’s finale told us that all the guests’ profiles are stored in a library at Westworld, so they can be 3D-printed into robot form.)
Meanwhile, “Westworld” refreshingly introduces a flat-out decent human being for the first time in a while: Aaron Paul’s Caleb. While Dolores is touring and smashing the lifestyles of the rich and famous, ex-soldier Caleb is scraping by via the underground gig economy. I love the invention of an app – similar to that used for Uber or Lyft – where he can grab criminal assignments. He would get more ratings points and money if he took “personals” (kidnappings, murders), but he sticks to delivery gigs.
Writers Jonathan Nolan (who also directs) and Lisa Joy – the creators of the series – nicely show us how Caleb is struggling: His chats with his off-screen best Army friend pepper his scenes. Then we learn that best friend is an AI – part of a futuristic psychoanalysis program – and Caleb cancels his subscription. But then he finds the injured Dolores stumbling through the streets after her escape, setting up a delicious scenario where an everyday human will get to know a sentient robot and Dolores will have to learn that some humans are good people.
As far as “Westworld” episodes go, “Parce Domine” isn’t too confusing. Hale (Tessa Thompson), the head of the Delos Corporation, is keeping the park going. We know from the end of last season that Hale is really a copy of Dolores on the inside.
Meanwhile, Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) has been fingered by Dolores/Hale as the one responsible for the killing spree at Westworld so he is trying to lay low as a meat-packing plant worker. Yet at the same time, Dolores/Hale has let him out into the world – as a distraction from Dolores/Hale’s plans, I’m guessing. The authorities will pursue Bernard and not realize what Dolores is doing, or that she’s even out there.
The episode’s second-best invention, behind the crime app, is Bernard’s remote-control button. With it, he can toggle his identity between his meek self and his Terminator-style self, and he can also talk back and forth between his two personas this way.
But then there are the “ugh”-worthy previews to episode two, where we’ll go back to the park – this time the Nazi section (!) – and see what persona Maeve (Thandie Newton) is programmed with now. On a slightly less bland note, we’ll also catch up with William (Ed Harris), who will learn (too gradually for my tastes, I’m sure) more about where he is from his “daughter”/host. Embarrassingly late in the game, I’ve realized Katja Herbers – whom I adore on “Evil” – plays William’s daughter, so I look forward to more of her scenes.
But there can be no doubt after “Parce Domine” that Dolores is the best character on “Westworld,” and an all-time great sci-fi creation. Even though too much of the first two seasons is a slog through the park, with Dolores and other hosts being repeatedly raped and killed, the benefit is that it put us in the fresh position of rooting for the person who would be the villain in most apocalyptic narratives. In Season 3, we’ll get to enjoy Dolores (and Wood) doing her thing.